They have the world's largest supply of fresh water at their doorstep. That won't change soon, of course - but the United States and Canada are strengthening their ties as allies for a possible water war that could be played out on the international marketplace this century.
Lining up a defense strategy are the region's eight governors and two Canadian premiers, who are attempting to close loopholes in a little-known charter they signed in 1985 by passing an amendment with the simple name: Annex 2001.
Annex 2001 would spell out limits for water diversions and bulk exports. In short, authorizations would be limited to public water systems that do not withdraw more than 1 million gallons a day - enough to serve the needs of some municipalities, but not enough, according to the governors, to cause an appreciable loss.
Ohio residents got a chance to check in on the issue at a meeting of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources held last night at Maumee Bay State Park. More than 100 people attended.
The sentiment mirrored what many people from this region shared at the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission in Milwaukee 16 months ago: a deep passion for holding on to the water.
But as Ohio DNR officials explained last night, it's not that simple. In fact, international trade agreements will make it difficult, if not impossible, to hoard the water, they said.
“People are concerned about having their water exported, whether it's overseas or to the West,” Sam Speck, Ohio DNR director, said.
Annex 2001 is a proposed agreement that would recognize water quantity - not just quality - as vital in protecting the lakes' ecology.
“I think we have a window of opportunity to do the job right and demonstrate we are truly protecting this resource from decline,” he said.
Yet there is much more at stake, especially for Toledo. Every inch of water removed from the shipping channel means that less cargo can be hauled. That invariably increases prices for goods.
John Loftus, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority seaport director, said the region cannot sacrifice shipping for diversions that would be required to support new development in outlying areas.
“Water's the most important resource we've got,” Mr. Loftus said during an afternoon session for public officials. “There isn't enough development that could occur to offset the losses.”
Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said during the afternoon session that “no real good can come from water diversion except that it increases the profits for a very limited number of companies.”
Last night's session for the general public was the first of four scheduled in Ohio. The next will be at 7 p.m. today at Cleveland Lakefront Park, followed by one at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the Ohio DNR's district office in Akron, and one at 2 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Ohio DNR headquarters in Columbus.
Michigan residents are encouraged to attend a meeting scheduled for tomorrow in Lansing. That meeting is at 9:30 a.m. on the third floor of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Knapps Centre.
Written comments are being accepted through Feb. 28 by state agencies and the Chicago-based Council of Great Lakes Governors.
The governors and premiers are expected to take a vote on the draft by late spring or early summer. Once a final vote is taken, Congress and the Canadian federal government will consider ratifying it, Dick Bartz, Ohio DNR spokesman, said.